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Five Ways Low Power FM Will Power Up Public Radio

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ds106-world-radio-dayWorld Radio Day is this Thursday, February 13. It’s the perfect time to talk about how Low Power FM Radio could change the public and community radio landscape in the United States. For the past three years, I’ve been putting a shoulder into low power FM (LPFM) infrastructure development. I have helped to get the word out about the opportunity nationally, assisted nonprofits with their applications, fostered relationships between applicants and identified resources to help them build. I’ve never seen so much enthusiasm for community radio, and my little public radio nerd heart is gleeful about the potential. Maybe some of the ideas are a stretch. I’m certainly showing my enthusiastic idealist colors, but World Radio Day encourages expansive thinking and big ideas. One thing’s for sure, LPFM will have an impact.

UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) created World Radio Day in 2011 to annually prompt us to think about the transformative power of radio. This year their focus is gender equality. People from around the world are contributing audio and video clips in which they further the discussion about gender in radio and other ongoing structural issues like race and class.

We know we have structural issues in public media. We talk about them at our conferences and participate in trainings at our stations, but the conversation doesn’t get much past working on individual racism and an introduction to white privilege. These inequities require multipronged solutions. One small way to chip away at them is the current LPFM radio infrastructure build out.

Some numbers that illustrate how we’re doing:

Women hold less than 7% of all TV and radio station licenses.
People of color hold just over 7% of radio licenses and 3% of TV licenses.
[source: Free Press]

92.7% of journalists at commercial radio stations are white.
81.5% of journalists at non-commercial radio stations are white.
91.3% of radio news directors (commercial & non) are white.
67.3% of the work force in local radio news are male.
[source: Radio Television Digital News Association 2012 survey]

For reference, the US population is 51% female and 49% male / 72.4% white and 27.6% people of color [source: US 2010 census]

Almost 3,000 non-profits applied for LPFM frequencies last year. This new wave will bulk up infrastructure for the grassroots strata of the public media ecosystem. Hundreds of LPFMs will make it to organizational stability. 708 already have their construction permits and are diving into building their stations. That’s hundreds of new anchor points for community media.

Here are five ways LFPM will power up public radio and address some of our inequities and challenges.

1) Make new friends and keep the old.

Let’s use this as an opportunity for our field to borrow from existing organizational models and experiment with new ones when it comes to content and organizational structure. Race Forward has a new report titled “Moving The Race Conversation Forward” that focuses on structural racism. Jay Smooth introduces it here. This structural analysis can also help us think through gender and class.

2) Nurture and surface new talent.

The statistics above make it clear that women and people of color have not had much access to shaping public media. Hundreds of new LPFM stations means thousands of new voices on the air and many opportunities for new leaders. LPFM producers will have low barriers to access tools and training, as well as a cohort of peers all experimenting with their craft and new organizational structures

3) LPFM volunteers are in a good position to innovate content.

Good stuff happens when the audience numbers are on a small scale and “no one is listening”. Posting content online and streaming will help the numbers. These broadcasters will be experimenting with their craft. Just as public radio facilities and news rooms have incubated new shows and podcasts, so will LPFM. Plus, there’s nothing like a live radio deadline to make creative people generative.

4) LPFM joins the music discovery pipeline.

In Seattle, we have 10 applicants. Likely 8 of them will get frequencies. One applicant, Hollow Earth Radio, already broadcasts online. In any given month, they have 50 to 100 volunteers making radio and participating directly in the station. If the other LPFMs are successfully engaging their communities, there will be hundreds of people looking for what’s good in their communities and sharing it out. KEXP in Seattle is a global taste maker due to their online presence. They are also one of five public radio stations (alongside our local alt weeklies and college radio stations) who break new music. We know anecdotally that they pay attention to Hollow Earth Radio. Perhaps this dynamic will emerge in other cities as well.

5) Community engagement collaborations.

Colleagues at established public radio stations are looking forward to community engagement opportunities with neighborhood-based LPFMs. These LPFMs will be closer to the ground and, if partnerships are established and tended, bigger stations can benefit from their relationships for events and sources for news coverage.

Welcome new LPFMs into your local public media community. Introduce them to the talented folks at your station. In Seattle, engineers, online strategists, journalists, and fundraising pros at community and NPR member stations have already pitched in or offered to help our LPFM applicants.

If you’re in public media, what do you think about LPFM? What collaborations are already in the works?

Author Sabrina Roach is a Doer, specializing in Public Media at Brown Paper Tickets. She worked for 11 years in public and community radio.